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Sierra Leone News: War Crimes & Justice

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) accomplished an incredible feat in convicting those most responsible for the atrocities of the Civil War (1990-2002). Their Court decisions did not bring back the many innocents who died or repair the trauma so many endured amidst the fighting, but from what I’ve read it did provide some sense of closure for a country committed to a peaceful future. According to a 2013 survey, 91% of Sierra Leoneans believed the SCSL had contributed to sustained peace in the region.
The Court tried and convicted nine people, including leaders from the RUF, the CDF, the AFRC, and even the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. No special court tribunal had ever indicted a sitting head of state, so the SCSL set an important precedent that even presidents cannot commit war crimes with impunity. They were also the first court to convict people for the use of child soldiers, for forced marriages as a form of sexual slavery, and for attacks on UN peacekeepers. According to SCSL materials, the Court was the first international criminal tribunal to achieve their mandate since the Nuremberg trials regarding crimes by Nazi leaders during WWII.
But the legacy and implications of the SCSL goes far beyond the borders of this country. Their judicial approaches and established precedents remain a model for future criminal tribunes to follow, which might happen sooner than I thought.
Calls from human rights groups and governments across the world are growing to create a criminal tribunal for war crimes committed in Syria. Their government, lead by autocrat Bashar al-Assad, has waged a brutal war campaign against rebel groups throughout the country. It is estimated that almost half a million people have died in the six-year civil war, which shows no signs of slowing.
Early this year, Assad used the chemical weapon Sarin gas against innocent civilians killing almost 100. Many of the dead were children. The use of Sarin gas is banned throughout the world and any use of this deadly nerve agent is categorically defined as a war crime. Evidence of countless other war crimes have been levied against the Assad regime – extrajudicial killings, torture, aiding terror campaigns – and international organizations are busy gathering and protecting evidence of these atrocities.
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has already collected 700,000 pages of Syrian intelligence documents including 55,000 photographs of the bodies of dead prisoners that a former forensic investigator smuggled out of the country. The UN recently established an independent organization to collect evidence that will assist in the future prosecution of those most responsible for crimes during the Syrian Civil War.
International law experts have already started to think about what that tribunal might look like. In the final months of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, international experts drafted a blueprint for the future special court to prosecute atrocity crimes during the Syrian Civil War. The committee included two former SCSL prosecutors and drew influence from the founding documents of Sierra Leone’s criminal tribunal. I can only hope that any Syrian tribunal will be as successful at the SCSL, but some experts have doubts a judicial system like the SCSL’s could be implemented in a post-war Syria.
The SCSL was hybrid system where the court was comprised of both local and international judges. Sierra Leone’s government, at the end of the war in 2002, was eager to hold war criminals accountable, so they partnered with the UN to do just that. The two entities both contributed funding, judges, and expertise to their joint goal of convicting rebel leaders and President Taylor.
That approach won’t work in Syria while Assad is still in power. He runs the government and has no interest in allowing UN prosecutors into his country to bring him and his advisors to court. The SCSL’s hybrid model will only work after Assad has been ousted from Syrian leadership. Until then, Syrian won’t know the closure Sierra Leone felt after Charles Taylor and the rebel leaders were sent to jail. Without accountability, they won’t enjoy the lasting peace that has endured in this country for the last 15 years.
Timothy’s Take
Wednesday July 19, 2017.

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